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NEW YORK – With formidable comedic aplomb, David Hyde Pierce stands in for playwright Christopher Durang when his deadpan composure erupts near the conclusion of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in a spectacular stream-of-consciousness rant that expresses his resistance to change, his yearning for the simpler past, and his concern for the future. It’s a funny set-piece but also an affecting one, capturing the vein of melancholy running through this whimsical play about aging and regret, which shrewdly appropriates characters and themes from Anton Chekhov in a contemporary setting.
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Ever since his emergence out of the Yale School of Drama in the 1970s, Durang has shown a penchant for satire and theatrical/literary mashup. Among his earliest successes was Das Lusitania Songspiel, a Brecht-Weill cabaret parody, created and performed with his classmate Sigourney Weaver. The pair are reunited here, along with frequent Durang collaborator Kristine Nielsen, in a play that lifts from Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and The Seagull, throwing in a dash of The Oresteia via a housekeeper portentously named Cassandra (Shalita Grant).
There’s also a detour into Walt Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a seemingly random representation of the infinite number of cultural milestones that mean nothing to today’s short-attention-span generation. Then there’s the title, which evokes Paul Mazursky’s 1969 comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, another satirical examination of changing social mores and of people hiding out in fear of them. Oh, and just for good measure, Nielsen’s character breaks out of her shell by literally channeling Maggie Smith winning an Oscar for playing an actress who loses an Oscar in California Suite, a typically arcane example of Durang’s fascination for the meta.
Does all this cohere into a seamless blend? Not entirely. It’s a very busy kettle of ideas bubbling around, not all of them brought to the boil. And Durang’s love of language sometimes seems as intoxicating to the playwright as it can be to his audience, showing a lack of economy in several scenes that run on well after making their point.
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But alongside the customarily wry, absurdist observational skills, there’s a poignancy in the self-reflection here about time and depression and choices and the odd quirks of inter-personal relationships. There’s also a distinctly unChekhovian hopefulness that surfaces late in the action, suggesting that perhaps with age and experience come serenity and even growth. All of that makes this flawed play disproportionately pleasurable in Nicholas Martin’s vibrant, perfectly cast production.
The single setting is a picturesque stone farmhouse in Bucks County, PA, rendered in idyllic splendor on a bright patch of lawn by designer David Korins. Sedentary creatures more by accident than by choice, Vanya (Pierce) and his adopted sister Sonia (Nielsen) have never left the home where they were raised by professors active in community theater, a leaning evident in their choice of names. While the siblings dutifully stayed behind to nurse their parents through illness, dementia and death, their movie-star sister Masha (Weaver) flitted around the globe, leaving a trail of ex-husbands and covering the bills back in Pennsylvania.
When Masha makes an unexpected visit, accompanied by her hunky twentysomething plaything Spike (Billy Magnussen), the unhappy stasis of Vanya and Sonia’s lives is thrown into harsh relief. Masha colonizes the environment with her magnificent self-absorption and blithe condescension, lamenting the great classical stage career she could have had (“I’d be the American Judi Dench”) if not for being caught up in a movie franchise about a nymphomaniac serial killer that made her millions. Weaver plays the role as an arch caricature – how else? But she pulls it off in high style, allowing hilarious glimpses of Masha’s insecurity whenever her faded youth is acknowledged.
The chief vehicle for unflattering comparison is Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a young acting student who encounters Spike while he’s taking a dip in the nearby pond. (His eagerness to strip to his underwear provides entertainment for gay but sexless Vanya.) More than by Nina, however, Masha gets the wind knocked out of her sails by Sonia, who buckles at being merely her famous sister’s accessory at a neighborhood costume party. The experiences of that night will determine whether Masha, now at a career turning point, will go ahead with her plan to sell the house, one of many omens foreseen by the excitable Cassandra.
Bright-eyed, ethereal and starstruck, Angelson’s lovely Nina is the character who sticks closest to her Chekhovian namesake. But the heart of the play is the three sisters, I mean siblings, who come to realize there may be more to life than the illusory trip to Moscow – or wherever.
While the inspiration for gloomy Vanya is self-evident, the character also contains elements of The Seagull’s Konstantin. Vanya writes an experimental post-apocalyptic play performed by Nina, in which global warming serves as a metaphor for his anxiety about a world spinning out of control. Spike’s distraction during the performance is what sparks Vanya’s aforementioned meltdown.
This goes on too long and shoehorns in a million editorial points seemingly for the sake of them. But Pierce’s rueful characterization is extremely touching. As he bemoans the loss of “the shared memory” in contemporary culture, he exposes Vanya’s awareness that the past, while comforting, is also a futile refuge. Something about the sighs and laughter that rippled through the audience during this speech suggests that his are sentiments shared by many.
Despite spending much of the play whining, “My life is over,” “I’m invisible,” or words to that effect, Nielsen’s Sonia also has a moving epiphany at the end of an extended telephone monologue, when she is overwhelmed emotionally after being asked on a date. There’s a generosity of spirit toward all the characters in Durang’s writing here, even monstrous Masha and narcissistic Spike, who is given savvy comic stylings by Magnussen.
While its surfaces might seem slight or even frivolous, this is a work by a mature playwright taking stock and illuminating countless universal truths for those of us who have hit contemplative middle age. He also demonstrates the enduring currency of Chekhov’s themes, showing that for all our supposed progress in the era of mass connectivity, despair and disappointment are as present as ever. Just like our Russian brethren more than a century ago, we are inescapably creatures of our time.
Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, New York
Cast: David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, Shalita Grant, Sigourney Weaver, Billy Magnussen, Genevieve Angelson
Director: Nicholas Martin
Playwright: Christopher Durang
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Music and sound designer: Mark Bennett
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, in association with McCarter Theatre Center
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